On September 15, the day the 11th annual Aleppo International Photo Festival was scheduled to open in the war-torn city of Aleppo, Syria, founder and organizer Issa Touma held a “symbolic opening” at his gallery. Weeks after PDN first tried to reach him, Touma emailed PDN and posted a statement on the festival’s Facebook page announcing that he had held a small opening in his gallery, LePont, to send a “message” about the survival of “civil society” in Aleppo. The northern Syria city has faced constant shelling by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and pitched street battles between the Syrian Army and rebel fighters, forcing thousands to flee their homes. Touma writes, “Today the festival give[s] a message to all, which is: whatever happened in Syria, the photo festival will not stop.”
This year’s festival was supposed to exhibit 870 works by almost 50 international photographers, including Amanda Rivkin, James Whitlow Delano, Sean McAllister, Corinne Dufka, Khaled Hasan and Liu Jinxun. Instead, Touma says, he showed 40 images in his gallery. People who attended were “relaxed and happy,” he says. He adds that if the fighting in Aleppo wanes, “I still hope to show the festival all in big opening, but its seem[s] hard for the moment.”
Touma, a self-taught photographer who opened his gallery in Aleppo in 1993, has endured frequent harassment from the country’s ruling Baath Party, which has tried to shut down the festival, censor his exhibits and, in 2003, briefly shut off electricity in order to end the workshops and lectures. Until this year, however, he has persevered, drawing international visitors.
Last year, before the regime of al-Assad began military action against the popular uprising around the country, Touma announced that this year’s festival would be the biggest yet, with exhibitions taking place in Aleppo’s old Electricity Company. But as he says, “No one expect[ed] Aleppo will be a war zone.”
In the last month, the city was without communication for 25 days, the Post Office is not functioning, “most of the City shops are close[d] including frames workshops and many print house[s],” and movement within the city is dangerous. While some residents have fled to Turkey, Touma says, many have moved closer into the heart of the city, and this displacement makes it impossible to reach organizers.
Touma says, “I will wait a few day[s] to see what direction” the fighting goes in, and he hopes still to hold a bigger opening or post the festival images on the Le Pont web site.
“Art and Culture do not need [a] visa to make nations to meet to each others –in Aleppo.”